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The Primary Factors that Determine the Shelf Life of Food

factor affecting shelf life

From prepackaged salads to canned foods and yogurt to baked goods, shelf life is always a top concern for food manufacturers. The demand for the highest level of quality and safety while reducing write-offs and food waste is an ever-present balancing act. To succeed, manufacturers rely on accurate code dating that balances a viable shelf life of their product while still meeting the consumers' expectations.

The consistent evolution of consumer demand creates a persistent challenge for those competing in the food industry. For example, the increased demand for natural food products and push for “clean eating” continues to keep manufacturers on their toes, as these products are likely not processed and include organic ingredients that typically have a lower shelf life. As the most reliable way to achieve the desired results, manufacturers conduct shelf life studies that will allow them to make informed decisions about their products.

During a shelf life study, a variety of tests are conducted to determine how products will fail over time. Tests range from environment and distribution simulations to chemical analysis. In order to better understand and leverage test results, it’s important to know the primary factors that influence shelf life: microbiology, moisture, biochemistry, and packaging.

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What Influences the Shelf Life of Food?

Following AACC International Approved Methods, Medallion Labs conducts comprehensive testing in microbiology, moisture, biochemistry, and packaging while replicating real-world conditions as closely as possible. A dedicated team of stability scientists and food analysts will determine the most likely limiting factors and will provide the possible solutions to circumvent these factors.


Microbial safety is always a primary concern. Before proceeding with any further testing, the stability group and microbiology department first work together to verify the safety of the product. Microbiology looks at the growth and behavior of microorganisms that interact with food and can threaten shelf life. When mold, yeast, and bacteria invade, the food may no longer be fit for consumption. These microorganisms are commonly found in fish, bread, and meat, which is why they tend to spoil fast.


Microorganisms grow faster in warm, moist conditions. When water is present, it can act as a solvent and cause certain chemical reactions to occur, effectively accelerating the aging process. Excessive moisture can lead to several adverse effects, such as molding, caking, lumping, mottling, and stickiness. Because of this, food's water content will have a direct impact on its deterioration over time. Fresh and unprocessed foods have a high percentage of water, ranging anywhere from 70 to 95 percent. Foods like cereals, peanut butter, and raisins contain a much lower percentage, while foods that have the longest life span usually have less than 10 percent water. Drying techniques, food additives, and freezing can also help control moisture.


Biochemistry is the study of the structure, composition, and chemical reactions of food. Understanding biochemistry can help determine how to best prolong a product’s shelf life. For example, foods with fats or fatty acids are vulnerable to the undesirable effects of oxidation. When lipids oxidize, carbon compounds are formed. These compounds can cause changes in odor and flavor, which may ultimately diminish the consumer's satisfaction and perception of the product's quality. Limiting exposure to oxygen, mainly through packaging, can help avoid these changes and maintain quality for a longer time.


Packaging is extremely important to the shelf life of a product. It acts as a barrier to protect the food from spoiling agents, such as oxygen and moisture. The packaging's design also plays a role in maintaining the environment surrounding the food. Utilizing airtight seals is often the best approach, but is not appropriate for every product, including respiring fruits and vegetables. Additionally, all packaging decisions must be made within the confines of regulatory standards and must be effective through shipping, handling, and eventual storage.

Code Date Challenges

Due to the complex reactions occurring in food, acceleration rates vary from product to product. Accordingly, food studies are tailored to each specific product. This allows a significantly higher degree of certainty when predicting product shelf life. While simulations and accelerated testing both have limitations, analysts do everything possible to achieve the most accurate results.

Food manufacturers can use these results to create code dates that satisfy their needs and the needs of the consumer. These dates must be as accurate as possible, as incorrect information can lead to significant problems. If the projected shelf life is too long, food may start to develop unpleasant flavors or aromas. In some cases, this may influence the customer to avoid future purchases from the brand. At the other end of the spectrum, if the shelf life is too short, products will be unnecessarily thrown out and wasted, perhaps before ever reaching the consumer.

Contact Medallion Labs for Shelf Life Testing

To learn more about shelf life testing services from Medallion Labs, contact us today. Shelf life studies are available with simulated variable environments, quality chemical analysis, quantified sensory environments, distribution simulation, formula moisture models, and packaging models. Together, these testing services are designed to help save manufacturers time and money while maintaining a positive brand reputation.

The process starts with a simple questionnaire and a conversation with the stability team to clarify the scope of your needs. This includes scaling testing to suit your requirements, resources, and budget. For additional information, call 1-800-245-5615 or email [email protected] today.

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